top of page

Watershed Moment

© 2019 CR Britting

HMS Sheffield.jpg

The day was cloudy and cold with intermittent rain. Lt. Commander Augusto Bedacarratz taxied his aircraft towards the runway, fastening his oxygen mask as he did so. After glancing over his shoulder to be sure the other aircraft was following, he selected the control tower frequency on the radio.

"Rio Grande Tower, Two-oh-two," he called, giving his aircraft number as he stopped just short of the runway, "flight of two, we're ready to go."

"Two-oh-two," the tower replied. "Altimeter two-niner, four-seven, runway one-seven, clear for takeoff. Good hunting, Commander."

"Two-oh-two, cleared to go." the pilot repeated. "We're rolling."

Glancing again over his shoulder, the commander received a thumbs-up from his wingman, Lt. Armando Mayora, then eased the throttles forward an inch or so to taxi out onto the runway. Moving to the left side of the concrete, he slowed momentarily to allow the other aircraft to come alongside, then shoved the throttles forward all the way to the stops.


Within a few seconds, both jet aircraft were moving swiftly. A moment later though, Augusto looked down at the airspeed indicator and frowned. It was taking longer than usual to reach flying speed, undoubtedly because the aircraft was so heavily loaded. Eventually they lifted off, using far more runway than they would normally.

As they passed through 500 feet, he began a climbing turn to the left, the other aircraft staying close alongside, and soon they were swallowed up by the overcast sky. Augusto had never felt really comfortable flying on instruments, and it was a relief when they finally broke out of the clouds and into the sunshine. A few more minutes and they were level at 18,000 feet, on a course that would take them to their destination, now 800 miles to the southeast.


Free of pressing duties for a moment, the commander stretched as best he could in the cramped cockpit. The Super Entendard was a fine airplane, fast and highly maneuverable, but it was not particularly comfortable to fly in. He took a small sip of water and looked over his instruments with the causal, but careful glance of a highly experienced pilot.


"Blackbird, this is Blue Goose." came the call on the radio. "We're at your one o'clock, about eight miles."


The commander looked intently out the windshield. There! A black speck just visible against the blue sky. "Roger, Blue Goose. We see you." He looked over at Alvarez, maintaining formation twenty feet off his right wing. Again he received the thumbs up signal, indicating the other pilot has also seen the aircraft. They were under orders to use the radio as little as possible, and it had been agreed that Armando would speak only when absolutely necessary.


A few minutes later the two fighter/bombers came up behind a slow-flying KC-130. The four engine propeller aircraft had been modified to serve as a tanker and it would replace the fuel they had burned during their takeoff and climb to cruising altitude. Augusto eased his plane slowly in behind the tanker and maneuvered his refueling probe into the basket-shaped receptacle trailing behind its left wing. Armando did the same on the other side.

In about ten minutes they were fully refueled and turned back to their original course, accelerating to their cruising speed of 600 miles per hour. As they winged their way southeast, Bedacarratz reviewed his flight plan for perhaps the twentieth time. They would maintain this fuel-saving altitude until they were about 400 miles from the target, at which time they would descend until they were only 50 feet above the water. Hopefully, flying at such a low altitude would allow them to avoid detection by enemy radar.

At that point they would be contacted by a P-2 Neptune patrol aircraft which had been shadowing the enemy fleet, keeping track of its position. Since the two pilots could not safely use their own radar for fear of detection, they would rely on directions provided by the P-2 to guide them to the vicinity of the enemy ships. Once they were in the target area, they would climb briefly and activate their radar long enough to ascertain the exact position of the enemy, then dive back down and release their missiles.

The commander looked out the right side of the canopy. The AM39 missile hanging under the wing was the largest air-launched missile he had ever seen. Over fourteen inches in diameter and nearly fifteen feet long, it had a range of almost forty miles and packed a powerful punch.

Neither pilot had ever fired an AM39 before, even in training. In fact, the shipment of missiles had just arrived ten days earlier and at first there was some doubt whether they could be successfully mated to the aircraft. Technicians from the factory had arrived soon afterwards, however, and the installation had proceeded smoothly. Now they were going to fire them for real and it had been decided that they would approach to within twenty miles to improve the odds of successfully engaging the target.


Forty-five minutes later they began a slow descent through the clouds to their attack altitude. Bedacarratz kept his eyes glued to the instruments and again breathed a sigh of relief when they emerged into clear air below the overcast. They had just leveled off at fifty feet above the water when the radio came to life.


"Blackbird, Lookout" came the call from the orbiting Neptune patrol aircraft.


Bedacarratz made the one word coded response. "Snowball."


The controller in the P-2 was also brief as he passed his message. "Five-eight-zero at two-two-zero." 580 miles on course 220. Bedacarratz repeated the numbers on the radio, then did some quick mental calculations. To increase security in case unfriendly ears happened to overhear the transmission, the P-2 had added ninety degrees to the course and 200 miles to the actual distance. That made the correct numbers 130 for the course to fly and 380 miles for the distance to the target. He wrote the numbers down on his kneepad and banked the aircraft to the left, correcting his course by five degrees.


From here on it was going to be hard work. The aircraft, already sluggish from the big missile and a long range fuel tank, was now bouncing around quite a bit due to the surface effect flying so close to the water. It was also burning fuel at a much higher rate in the thick, moist air near the surface.


"I sure hope that tanker is waiting on our trip home" the commander thought as he struggled to keep the wings level and the aircraft from smashing into the sea. To crash now would mean almost certain death. He was too low to eject if there was a problem and even if he survived a water landing the water was so cold he would freeze to death before anyone could come to pick him up.


During the next forty minutes, the P-2 called twice, updating the course and distance to the target. By prearrangement Bedacarratz did not answer these transmissions. He was now close enough to find the target on his own if necessary and it was better for him to maintain radio silence.


Thirty five miles away from the oncoming aircraft, an enemy vessel had been stationed as picket ship, to provide early warning of an attack. Its radar was radiating continuously, searching for any approaching aircraft. Unfortunately, radar operates at such a high frequency that its detection beam travels in a straight line and does not follow the curvature of the earth. So, an aircraft flying close to the surface could theoretically avoid detection until it was relatively close. It was this principle the two pilots were counting on to allow them to approach undetected.


When his calculations showed that they were about 20 miles from the target area, the commander signalled to Armando and both aircraft climbed to 200 feet, activating their attack radars at the same time. Two targets appeared immediately on the scope, a medium-sized one fairly close and a much larger target somewhat further away.


On the enemy picket ship, the radar operator reported contact with the now visible aircraft, but immediately lost it as the aircraft once again descended to near the surface.


"Take the one further out, it might be their carrier." Augusto said briefly to Armando, the first time he had spoken directly to him since the flight began. He had already targeted the closer vessel for his own missile. The Commander threw several switches to arm the AM39 and pressed the firing button on his control stick, fervently praying the missile would work.


Almost instantly, the solid fuel rocket engine ignited and the huge missile seemed to leap away from the aircraft, trailing a ten-foot tongue of orange flame. During the next few seconds, Bedacarratz had his hands full as the aircraft, now 1500 pounds lighter, wanted to leap skyward. Just as he got it back under control, Mayora fired his own missile. The commander got a good view this time as the second missile sped away. In the next few seconds, it would accelerate to nearly 700 miles per hour and descend to an altitude of only eight feet above the water. Bedacarratz again signalled to Mayora and the two aircraft turned away to began the long flight home.


Aboard the enemy ship, there was some confusion about the brief radar contact. "I tell you it was there!" the radar operator insisted. "Not very long, but it was there." The discussion continued for a moment longer, all the time they had left.


"What's that?" said one officer on the bridge, pointing to a trail of smoke near the horizon.


"Where?" everyone asked, straining to see what he was talking about.


"MY GOD, ITS A MISSILE!" someone shouted. At that moment the AM39 was one mile from the ship...and it covered that distance in less than five seconds.




On the afternoon of May 4th, 1982, the AM39 missile, known ever after as the Exocet, slammed into the starboard side of the British destroyer HMS Sheffield, eight feet above the waterline, at a speed in excess of 1000 feet per second. It is believed the warhead failed to explode, but the force of the heavy missile hitting the ship at high speed caused tremendous damage and the unburned rocket fuel ignited, causing an intensely hot fire. All electrical power was immediately lost and the central water main was fractured, making it impossible to fight the fire effectively. Within twenty seconds the interior of the ship was filled with toxic black smoke, further hindering firefighting efforts.


Although heroic work to save the ship would continue for some hours, eventually the order was given to abandon ship. Twenty two men were dead and many others were badly burned.
The two pilots landed safely about two hours later, unaware of the results of their mission. It was not until they listened to the British Broadcasting Corporation's evening newscast that they learned one of their missiles had actually hit its target...


"In the course of its duties in the total exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands, HMS Sheffield, a type 42 destroyer, was attacked and hit late this afternoon by an Argentine missile. The ship caught fire, which spread out of control. When there was no longer any hope of saving it, the crew abandoned ship and were later picked up."


Historians define the term "watershed" as a time of change, after which things are no longer the same. And so it was with the Exocet attack on the Sheffield. The face of modern warfare changed. What was once only a theory had now become reality. A single plane with a single missile, fired by a pilot who never saw his target, could now destroy or disable a $100 million warship. Two more times the Exocet would shock the British fleet before the Falklands War ended. And seven years later an unsuspecting USS Stark would be hit "accidentally" by the same weapon.


In the years since the sinking of the Sheffield, the problem of defending against sea-skimming missiles has been among the first concerns of military planners. And even today there is no foolproof method of dealing with the threat they pose. The Tomahawk missile of 1991, that proved so effective in the war against Iraq, is simply an enhancement of the same technology first proved in the Falkland Islands in 1982.



The primary American defense today against the type of attack described in the story is to prevent the aircraft from getting close enough the launch the missile in the first place. This is accomplished by the use of airborne early warning radar. Instead of being on the surface ship, where the radar can't see a low flying aircraft or missile much beyond the horizon, you put the radar at 30,000 feet and point it downward. This radar can see hundreds of miles in all directions, even low-flying objects.


The AWACS aircraft you may have heard of were designed specifically with this role in mind. The U.S. has two types of AWACS planes, the E-3 Sentry, which looks like a commercial jetliner with the big radome on top, and its smaller cousin, the E-2 Hawkeye, a twin-engine propeller aircraft, four of which are stationed on every U.S. aircraft carrier.


When a U.S. Navy carrier force puts to sea, at least one E-2 is constantly circling overhead. If a hostile aircraft is detected by the E-2, fighters are launched by the carrier to intercept it before it can get close enough the fire its weapons.


During the Falklands War, the Royal Navy aircraft carriers were too small to operate early warning aircraft. As a result, the British were often not aware of attacking Argentine planes until they arrived overhead! Something like 25-30% of all the British surface ships in the area were sunk or damaged by aircraft, most of them carrying only World War II-type iron bombs. You can see why there was a lot serious discussion after the war was over. Since that time they have modified helicopters to carry early warning radar, so they at least have some warning of an approaching enemy.


Briefly, there are two other types of defenses against low-flying missiles and aircraft. One is "chaf", a canister containing thousands of tin-foil like pieces of metal fired into the air to confuse the missile's radar The other is a CIWS (Close In Weapons System). This is a six-barrel gattling gun-type weapon which can shoot 3000 shells a minute. This weapon (the "Phalanx") is used as a "last ditch" defense against targets that come within about a mile of the ship.


Interestingly, the Stark had both chaf and a Phalanx, but failed to use them. Had it done so, both missiles fired at it by the Iraqi aircraft in 1989 might have been defeated and many lives might have been saved.


By the way, the second Argentine missile mentioned in the story, apparently fired at the British carrier HMS Hermes, was launched from too great a distance and fell harmlessly into the sea short of its target. Believe it or not, the Argentine Naval Air Force had a grand total of five (yes, five Exocet missiles. Of these, three scored hits. Think of what might have happened if they'd had 25 of them!

bottom of page